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Female fat and fat deposition: subcutaneous versus abdominal fat

Posted by on Aug 29, 2012 in Blog, Weight Loss | 32 comments

Female fat and fat deposition: subcutaneous versus abdominal fat

I have been receiving a fair number of e-mails and messages about the Gender Differences in Fat Deposition post over at Mark Sisson’s site.   Can I throw my hands up and say “ah ha! We did it!  The giants are talking about sex differences.  Now I can retire and move on to different projects”?  Yeah, maybe a little bit.  But I won’t.  I’ve become too addicted to this community and work.  Which, of course, needs all of the advocates and passion we can throw at it.

Anyway, briefly.  I addressed the physiology of women’s weight loss in two posts: The Physiology of Women’s Weight Loss Part I: Estrogen, and The Physiology of Women’s Weight Loss Part II: Appetite and Weight Regulation.  I go into a fair bit more depth on both of those topics than Mark does, though he also points out a few great differences:

Women burn fat differently than men. Upper body fat goes first, while lower body fat tends to stay put. Except during pregnancy and lactation, when the lower body begins to give up lower fat stores far more readily. Interestingly (and not by coincidence), women tend to preferentially store the long chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA – the one that’s so important to the baby’s development during and pregnancy – in their thighs.

Women make more triglycerides than men do, but their serum levels are similar. This indicates that the fat is being taken back up into adipose tissue at a higher rate in women than in men.

Women are better at burning fat in response to exercise. During endurance exercise, they exhibit lower respiratory exchange ratios than men, which indicates more fat burning and less carb burning.

Women are better at converting ALA into DHA, and they also tend to have more DHA and AA circulating throughout their serum than men, who have more saturated and monounsaturated fat.

These differences in fat metabolism aren’t seen in isolated muscle cells of men and women, which isn’t really surprising. We’re made with the same basic building blocks; we just run on different software. The differences are systemic and hormonal.

 

Mark also remarks in his post, much like I did in my estrogen post, that women tend to store fat around the hips buttocks and thighs, and this has been shown time and time again to be healthier than the typical male pattern of abdominal fat deposition.  This is well known in the literature and encouraging for curvy women everywhere.

I have, however, been getting a lot of questions about fat deposition in the abdomen.  When and why do women still store fat in their abdomens, even though they traditionally have more subcutaneous fat than men?

1) Women store fat in the abdomen during menopause.

Women store fat in their abdomens during menopause fairly frequently.  This is because estrogen levels are dropping sharply.   Many women supplement with bio-identical hormones, in fact, and see their weight gain / weight shift minimize.  Another great way to mitigate this problem is to eat a diet consisting of whole foods, which will minimize insulin spiking that can also contribute to abdominal fat gain, and which will also keep hormone levels fairly well-balanced.

Menopausal women may also want to play around with soy if they are experiencing dramatic menopause symptoms.  Please proceed with caution in that case, however.  I wrote about how complicated soy is here.

2)  Women store fat in the abdomen when they are stressed out.

Cortisol drives abdominal fat deposition.  This comes from stress as well as from any loss of sleep quality that may have occurred as a result of stress.

Cortisol and insulin tend to run together, as well, which means that this point and the following point can be difficult to untangle.

3) Women store fat in the abdomen when they are insulin resistant.

Insulin resistant women experience more abdominal fat deposition than those who are insulin sensitive.   Moreover, a woman at any single BMI can be insulin resistant, which means that thin women can have IR problems still and deposit fat in their abdomens.  The results from one study are particularly striking:

“ We found a strong negative relationship between central abdominal fat and whole-body insulin sensitivity, and nonoxidative glucose disposal, independent of total adiposity, family history of NIDDM, and past gestational diabetes. There was a large variation in insulin sensitivity, with a similar variation in central fat, even in those whose BMI was <25 kg/m2.” 

IE: Insulin sensitivity in both overweight and normal weight women drives abdominal fat deposition.

4) Women store fat in the abdomen when they are particularly genetically primed to.

Some women naturally have more fat in their abdomens than other women do– that’s just how genetic rolls the dice.  It’s okay, it really is.  It does not mean you are unhealthy.  Only blood tests might reveal that.  Each woman has a different shape particular to her genetics and her history.

Have experiences with different kinds of fat?  Fed up with hefty ab fat but non-existent ass-fat like Elissa?   Have a hard time loving your stomach even though you totally should?  Let me hear it in the comments!

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32 Comments

  1. So, all the sushi I’m eating is going straight to my thighs? No wonder they’ve gotten bigger since going paleo.

    • since eating Primal/paloe I have gained muscle in my legs as I do gym but have a belly roll that was not there before.!

  2. I’ve always stored fat all over my body (since childhood). I grew up on artificial sweeteners and ricecakes (hello, 80s nutrition), so when I was a chubby kid, I became an eating disordered teen and young woman. I have been what I call ‘fully recovered’ mentally for 5 months (no thoughts/restrictions/obsessions regarding food/exercise) and my energy levels are getting better.
    My hormones are totally messed up. Eating real food, socially working out (intensity intervals, group settings, tennis…) Sleeping a lot.
    Every time I’ve tried to get better over the years I reach that hump “why do I have fat ALL OVER?’ hate myself because I try so hard, and relapse.
    I wish I could put it in my butt or just thighs.
    But I get chubby arms. Chubby fingers. Chubby earlobes! The only thing I DON’T have are BOOBS!!!
    And yes, back chub tummy chub…
    I am sturdy and strong, but is chub-all-over just a body type too?
    The rest of my family looks that way on the SAD diet with no exercise. (thyroid/uterine probs.)
    NOT FAIR that I eat SO clean and work out SO RIGHT and still…look like they do.
    I guess I’ve got a lot of recovery left, mentally and physically. Probably the stress of being frustrated makes it worse.

    • My family is also ‘chubby and strong’ body type.. Irish/Russian, bikers.. you know the look.
      I’m 34 and am at just a tad over a year from having started the 50 million pound challenge in conjunction with martial arts training.. consistant work has brought me down from 280# to 210# in that year..
      Make sure you eat often and eat enough, and don’t neglect exercise. Once you hit 1500 calories for a day, watch the snacks and such as it’s easy to go over with them.

      Between my 3 cousins and I who all started at the same time, we have lost 245#.. 1m is now 6’3, 180#, 1m is now 5’10, 210#, 1f is now 135#, 1m child (8yo) is now 85#.
      The 6’3 guy and the boy did not follow the diet nearly as strictly of course.
      Good luck!! Unfortunately, with our body type, staying fit is a lifelong challenge.

    • I know how you feel!!!!

  3. What about women (like the age of 24) with hypothyroidism and are paleo … I still have some chub to lose … what do I do? Any suggestions?

    • I had Hashimotos, 80/20 paleo and have completely reversed my disease. I would suggest crossfit. It has done amazing things for me :)

  4. I suppose my shape could be genetic, since I’m built like all the women in the family for the last two generations. That makes me feel helpless. I’m thick-waisted with a layer of abdominal fat and a relatively flat butt. Stress, yes. I don’t always sleep well because of arthritis. I take aspirin, but sparingly. Resistance exercise two or three times a week helps. I lost quite a bit of weight, but it stopped during menopause and left me with this saggy belly. :p

  5. Meh… I was beautifully proportioned until I had 3 babies in 3.5 years.

    I happen to have all the symptoms of PCOS (except for the polycystic ovaries – go figure!), complete with a lot of belly fat. On the bright side, though, I do have a fabulous ass.

    6 months of eating paleo has slowly (oh, so slowly!) whittled away at my tummy, but I’ve got a long way to go yet. I keep telling myself that it took 15 or so years to put it on, and I can’t expect it to disappear overnight…

  6. I will gain weight all over, pretty proportionally, except for my abdomen which gets more chub. I’ve never, ever had a flat belly, even as a kid. Part of that was bloating/distension from undiagnosed celiac, but I think part may be genetic. My sister and mother put on weight in the middle as well. Now in the process of figuring out thyroid issues, which throws a big wrench into the works.

    I’ve battled my belly pillow for so long, and it’s a love/hate thing. 6+ years of clean eating didn’t really touch it. I would love, LOVE, to finally have at least a reasonably flat belly… but I just don’t think it’s in the cards for me, for whatever reason.

  7. Is it possible that excess estrogen, either in the form of birth control pills or just in the body contributes to belly fat? I used to have a not flat, but not fat belly, and since I have been on hormonal birth control the belly seems to be growing and growing!

  8. I’m only 30 and I’ve always carried all my weight in my abdomen. My hips have always been super tiny-narrower than my waist actually. I’ve always been a bit over weight, except during college when I was put on Dexedrine for ADD. Then I was arguably a little underweight and I still had a lower abdominal pooch and love handles. I know that part of the issue for me is related to insulin sensitivity (I’ve always been hypoglymic, though it’s gotten a lot better with paleo), and I’ve always had issues with insomnia, so there’s that too. Its also genetic too-just the way I’m built. This was confirmed when I had chiropractic x-rays taken and saw my pelvic bone. My Iliac Crest (top point of pelvic bone) is wider than my Greater Trochanier (point of hip bone-the part that sticks out from the socket) (I’m not really that much of an anatomy expert-I used google for the anatomical terms). Anyway, in most x-rays I’ve seen of female pelvises, this is the opposite. I think this may not bode well for having children in the future =(

  9. ” Women store fat in the abdomen when they are stressed out.”

    My daughter has mild physical disabilities due to a genetic disorder, so I take her to a pediatric PT/OT clinic for therapy. I have noticed that EVERY mother there (including me) has the same shape–overwieght with lots of abdominal fat. The few dads who come are not overweight, as a general rule, but EVERY mom is, except for some of the moms of the very youngest babies who are probably newly-diagnosed and just beginning their “special needs” journey. I have a feeling that these mothers will look just like me in a few years, too.

    Caring for a special needs child is a full-time job in itself, between dealing with insurance companies, public shools, and public agencies, juggling therapy schedules, multiple doctor visits, extra heath care needs, following home programs,and finding money to pay for all this–added on to caring for other children AND often working outside the home. Stress doesn’t even begin to describe it! (And I had it easy because my child’s disabilities are very mild!). Diets and mom’s needs go out the window, especially at the beginning when there are so many balls in the air.

    A classic example of what you’re talking about!

  10. Hmm, I’m not sure which reason applies to me.. I’ve always had a belly. But my mum doesn’t, so I don’t know if it’s genetic. Going Paleo I lost weight from everywhere but my belly! Ok maybe I lost some there too but it’s hanging on! I’ve always had trouble sleeping, I don’t know if it’s stress, I do worry a lot, or if there’s some other reason I cannot sleep. So can loss of sleep that isn’t caused by stress do the same thing?

  11. PCOS – check. Abdominal fat (even when skinny) – check. High cortisol levels – check. Severe sleep problems – check. Eating disorder -check. Possible hypoglycemia & IR too (waiting for test results). Been GF for 2 months which has reduced tummy bloating, but tummy fat prevails, despite low carb Paleo diet & weights training & pilates. Have ditched the high intensity interval training due to high cortisol levels. Taking lots of supps to reduce estrogen & bio identical progesterone. Sigh…Great to see these things highlighted and discussed, thanks! :)

    • Hey Aussie Girl – how are you? Any improvements? I have a feeling we are on the same boat! Running out of ideas :(

  12. Hmmm, I am 51, permenopausal and have lost 50 punds over the last two years mostly through cranking up the exercise and cutting out grains, sugar and high fat dairy. I have no butt and thighs anymore! I never really had a belly…but I am still DD and have lots of back fat?! What hormones combo drives this kind of fat distribution. I am running on the vapors of estrogen, (starting hot flashes, barely bleed) and do topical 2% progesterone two weeks every month. I am looking more and more like my mother…so soem of it is genetic is suspect.

  13. I think its really cool that so many people are posting about this right now, and oddly enough it does make me feel better about my body shape, and makes me more accepting of myself. Another really interesting recent article was published at Paleo non-Paleo. I never really thought about body shape the way she describes it, and I think its really enlightening. http://paleononpaleo.com/body-type-ttapp/

  14. How do you think women who want to lose weight need to make adjustments to the paleo diet? Should we tailor the diet and eat less fruit/nuts?

  15. I’m 50, and tested high for estrogen on a saliva test. My MD ordered me to ditch any make-up or creams that tout anti-wrinkles or anti-aging, to use natural oils for skin lotion, and to go fragrance free in all beauty products.

    Apparently, the lab that runs the tests has seen a huge spike, in the last few years, of hormonal overdoses in women who are NOT taking supplemental hormones.

    The lab requested clinicians send in samples of their patients’ beauty products to be tested, and sure enough, a high percentage came back positive for added hormones. This is something that the companies are not required to disclose on the label.

    It seems that we are at risk of ODing from not only beauty products, but other environmental xenoestrogens we are exposed to (plastics, etc.).

  16. One of the reasons the differences in fat retention and deposition isn’t discussed as much as it should be — in the paleo world or elsewhere — is because it’s simply not as well understood as other parts of physiology. It’s not for lack of subjects or interest, it’s due to lack of core research . The reason is because of sexual dimorphism is horribly complex, whether you’re talking about humans or Bombardier beetles. Untangling the mess of interaction between gender, genetics, dimorphic differences, physiology is the stumbling block.

    As Mark’s post points out about in vivo muscle cells, outside the body, they perform nearly identically, but in the body, it’s a whole new ball game. That’s the crux of sexual dimorhpism’s complexity.

  17. I too have a real problem with most of my fat being on my belly. I’m 40 next year, but I’ve had the same shape for the past 20 years, and my dd10 also has the same problem. I’m not menopausal.

    I do have Type II diabetes. I cant sleep without taking painkillers every single night. I’m addicted to them I know, because if I stop them I’m throwing up for days. But I still dont sleep well. I have to sleep on my own, as it has to be as quiet as possible, or I dont sleep at all.

    I keep starting back on low-carb or paleo eating as I know it is what my body works with the best, but I fall off the wagon again and again. After one day of eating low carb I’ll be so nauseated in the evening its not funny. I guess I’ll have to start on a Friday, and ride it out over the weekend.

    It is so bloody hard for me to lose from my belly, and I’m really worried for my daughter.

  18. Particularly since losing my uterus & ovaries at age 35, I have battled belly fat despite being on synthetic hormone replacement. I switched to bioidenticals early this year and started working on adrenal fatigue and hypothyroid problems. Finally at long last I am losing the belly fat. I also cut out the last of the high-glycemic foods (occasional rice & potatoes, raisins & bananas) and in the last 7 weeks, I’ve lost 8 pounds. I think the hormones are finally starting to work right. I have more energy and am sleeping better, too.

    I’d advise any women out there struggling with menopausal weight gain to find a good doctor (functional MD or naturopath) who can help you regain normal hormone function. Better health is possible (and with that may go improved body composition).

  19. I’m not sure about what my 40lb fat in my abdomen is from but it’s impossible to lose. My bmi with the stomach by Navy standards is 37. My bmi without the protruding stomach is 29. I ‘m active, consume about 1500cal. I have hypothyrodisim, but I take 200mcg of levothyroxin. I’ve lived with a HIGH level of stress for 25yrs. I don’r know what it is, At the age of 30 I gained a LARGE amount of fat, but exercise and the correct dosage of medicine seems to have run their course and I can’t get rid of the stomach fat. I don’t get any help from my doctor. I’m beginning to think I have a tapeworm or something. I can only eat one meal a day [small], and if I eat any more than that, I gain weight. I don’t know what to do. I wish I could get it surgically removed but, I can’t afford it. help

    • Unfortunately, years of chronic stress and dieting can put a big toll on a person’s metabolic rate over time. I’d recommend seeing a functional medicine doc to troubleshoot what’s wrong if you’re really at a loss and think there’s an underlying physiological issue other than ‘stress.’ And do your best with the stress! It’s kind of enormously a big deal. :)

  20. Not making amends with my natural, genetic, tendency to have some belly seriously messed me up.

    I was dead-set on getting rid of it through the wrong means (excessive cardio which led to decreased appetite, not enough dietary fat/calories) and this had led to hormonal chaos..amenorrhea, decreased estrogen, elevated testosterone. Since I’ve gained weight, eat more fat, am waaay less restrictive I still have PCOS so I don’t know why it hasn’t resolved itself yet. Perhaps, although I’m thin and lean, I’m still insulin resistant? Who knows, but being really mean to my belly initiated this hormonal chaos and has made my pcos an even more confusing thing to resolve. I guess having any preoccupation with a body part can drive one to be excessively harsh on themselves which can be a recipe for disaster though.

  21. Is it wrong that I grab my belly fat and say to it: “I hate you more than words could ever express! Go away! Nobody likes you!” ?
    Probably.
    I was diagnosed with PCOS in 2009, when I was 60lbs heavier and 10 sizes bigger. Now at 5’3″, size 8ish, (25 y/o) weighing 160lbs, with a good amount of muscle, I can’t stand the sight of my belly (even though it’s so much smaller and I should be grateful) and that’s because I work so hard to get rid of it. For the most part I eat very clean, drink only water, and I work out like a mad woman. 6 days a week at an athlete level (I do Insanity and The Asylum.. killer!)

    Must be all that insulin crappiness going on. I have 3 sisters and none of them carry their weight in their bellies. My mom either. They are all heavier in the butt/hip/thigh area. And I got the flat booty -__- big boobies, big belly, fat back.

    I honestly don’t know what else to do other than keep on. At least my heart and lungs are being taken care of. I guess. I sleep like a baby 9+ hours a day. I don’t have a stressful lifestyle, other than this stress to lose the last 4inches of belly fat by March 30th.
    Did Intermittent Fasting while doing the 60 day Insanity challenge, and I went down 3 inches off my belly. Small yay. (3 inches is so little to the amount of work I put into it) Did 30 days of The Asylum (which is a big step up) and went down zero inches and my weight stayed at 160. I am just now getting out of a deep depression after finding out 4 days ago (haven’t left my house at all).

    Maybe lipo in the future? Hate the idea of that. But honestly, with how my state of mind has been, it should be covered by insurance. Realistically, I don’t think I’d do lipo even if it were free but yeah. The loathing is intense.

    And of course it all boils down to: Could I ever be loved and found attractive with these extra 4 inches of belly fat?

    That’s sick. But it’s real.

    • 6 days a week of Insanity type workouts is probably not helping your belly fat. Exercise raises cortisol, which is not all bad, but as I understand it people with signs of hypercortisolism (ie increased belly fat) should stick to lifting heavy weights (full body compound movements 3 times/wk) and lots of walking and RELAXATION!

      Beating yourself up physically (ie, over exercising) is probably only worsening your situation

    • Wow, apparently I didn’t finish reading your entire post… You were intermittent fasting in conjunction with those workouts?! No wonder you didn’t lose any weight on the second round.

      You need to calm down, relax and stop the self-loathing. As someone mentioned above, that self loathing is only compounding your stress.
      Stop focusing on fat loss, lift some heavy weights and focus on your strength….you would be amazed how things fall in place. And stop the intermittent fasting…Good Luck!

      • THANK you! What you’re saying has been dawning on me for a few weeks and I’m working on myself on convincing myself that I don’t have to work out so intensely. I am lifting more weights now and I have gone down a few more inches. It’s not enough for me, but I’ll continue doing that since it’s still progress. Thanks again. Let me go eat something! (Was starting to do IF again as of yesterday…) You’re right. Self-loathing needs to stop.
        I’m at 154lbs now since I posted that in February. And down 2 inches more of belly fat. Again, super slow progress. My arms are more toned and my thighs too. So I have some more muscles PLUS those 6lbs of weight loss. That all must be good. =)

        • Love it!! Thank you for sharing, and welcome to the team!!

  22. This!

    I’ve been doing Paleo for 10 months now, and while my lower body (hips & thighs) have slimmed down quite a bit, it is not the same loss I have experienced on my upper body (arms, chest & tummy too). My upper body is quite slim now, but I have what can only be described in polite terms as a J-Lo behind!

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